I’ve made a lot of choices
Most have not been wise
But I have some really good friends
I’ve been fortunate enough to find
They get through the lonely days
When I want to stay inside myself
They get me out of my shell
Out into the world …
Heartless Bastards, “Hold Your Head High“
I used to think I was good at being alone. I remember my last two years of college in Connecticut, with my future bride half a country away, I felt like I had being alone down to an art form. I had routines. I got sleep. I listened to my own music, watched Polish movies no one else wanted to, ate in the dining halls when most of my friends moved off campus, worked 20+ hours a week and still went to class. I got stuff done, talked to Jodi on the phone (and chatted online, before we knew what it was called), and was generally a pretty happy guy.
I remember when I discovered I wasn’t good at being alone. I went to Chicago for a conference. It was around Christmas, a few years after Jodi and I married. Certainly we had Brendan, maybe Gabe, too. I remember wandering downtown the first evening, wrapped like a package in my old wool overcoat and scarf, enjoying the swirling snow, the glittering lights, and the bustle of holiday traffic on the Miracle Mile. I remember the brief pang in my chest as I thought, Jodi would enjoy this. I remember calling home from the hotel, then settling in for a long winter’s nap.
I lay awake a long time. I tossed and turned, turned on the tube, discovered that old truth of cable (hundreds of channels and nothing on), and nonetheless watched parts of several movies. I finally drifted off in the wee hours, woke tired at the alarm’s cry, and shuffled off to the conference’s morning session.
By the end of the first full day, all of things that sparked wonder the previous day now only increased the hollow ache in my chest. I wanted to go home. I was a family man.
In college and thereafter, I discovered something else about me: not only am I not good at being alone or apart from the people I love, but I also tend toward being an all-or-nothing friend. I’m either right there with you, deeply, personally, and for the long haul, or I’ll give you the old reverse nod and try to remember your name. I’m terrible with names, worse with birthdays and such, I generally hate phone calls, and, as a writerly sort, I can’t send a casual email to anyone I don’t feel I know pretty well. (My casual emails are studiously so, and I have the obsessive habit of re-reading them after I send them and wishing I’d worded them differently. Sometimes I’ll clarify with a P.S. after the fact.) So you might imagine that maintaining a casual acquaintance isn’t easy for me.
But I like people. Too much, sometimes. I like people to the point that I get emotional when strangers do. I like people to the point that when they do bad things I’m shocked and disappointed, almost moreso than angry. I like people with views so counter to mine that my guts tie in knots in anticipation of when it’ll all blow up. I practice what I’ll say when it does, in my head so you can’t hear, hoping that it’s the right combination of words that will convey vehement disagreement and utmost affection.
Somebody told me a couple of weeks ago that I don’t seem like an insecure guy. Maybe I’m not. But I want to do right by you. All of you. It’s completely naive and idealistic and impossible. It’s exhausting at times, and about every two weeks I want to secede from society. I want to pull into my shell just so I can breathe.
You people invariably coax me out again. Today, dozens of you took a second to wish me a happy birthday, in the midst of a stressful, eat-at-your-desk, student-protest-outside-the-window, what-the-hell-am-I-doing kind of Tuesday. Facebook, of course, has made the casual friendship so easy that even I can do it now, but still—you took a couple seconds out of your day to brighten mine. Why did you do that? Maybe you’re thinking it’s not big deal, but I smiled through the sporadic train wrecks of the day because you decided to burn a moment on me.
Do you realize what that is? There’s a word for it, one we use in a million wrong ways and are too often afraid to use right. Yup. That one.
So I’ll say it, and may your cheeks burn to hear it: I love you. Yes, even you. And don’t worry if you were about to let me have it regarding something I said or did. Go ahead. It’s gonna be okay; I’ve got it all planned out.